The Van­ished Collection

Pauline Baer de Perignon, Natasha Lehrer (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – January 3, 2022

In ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Paris, Jules Strauss is a Ger­man-born emi­gre to France who becomes a suc­cess­ful banker and an avid col­lec­tor of art and arti­facts. He amass­es an espe­cial­ly rich col­lec­tion of Impres­sion­ist art in his Paris apart­ment, along with mas­ter­pieces of ear­li­er French art and fur­ni­ture. In the ear­ly 1930s, much of Strauss’s col­lec­tion is sold at auc­tion — a casu­al­ty of the depres­sion years. He dies in 1943, out­lived by his wid­ow and sev­er­al chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, who man­age to escape the fate of many Jew­ish cit­i­zens dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of France. Fol­low­ing the war, his wid­ow files claims that Jules’s remain­ing col­lec­tion has been stolen by the Nazis, but she fails to reclaim any of the art.

Jules Strauss is author Pauline Baer de Perignon’s great-grand­fa­ther; The Van­ished Col­lec­tion is a mem­oir of her attempt to find out what hap­pened to the family’s collection.

De Perignon’s sto­ry reck­ons with the last­ing effect of the Holo­caust on famil­ial lega­cy and prop­er­ty. The cam­paign to erase Jew­ry result­ed in the loot­ing and dis­pers­ing of thou­sands of paint­ings, sculp­tures and oth­er objects d’art, in part to sup­press degen­er­ate” art and par­tial­ly to enrich indi­vid­ual Nazi offi­cials. Esti­mates vary as to the extent of the lost work, only a frac­tion of which has been suc­cess­ful­ly returned to their own­ers or heirs. The pop­u­lar film Woman in Gold (2015) tells of one such suc­cess­ful claim for restora­tion. De Perignon’s mem­oir is a robust addi­tion to the grow­ing genre of art resti­tu­tion sto­ries, the depic­tion of her own dogged quest to achieve some sort of jus­tice for her family’s loss cap­tured deftly.

De Perignon’s quest is also a sto­ry of her own self-dis­cov­ery. In 2014, at age forty, she is liv­ing what seems like a con­tent­ed mid­dle-class Parisian life, all the while har­bor­ing self-doubt. She aspires to be a writer but has as of yet not pub­lished a book nor found a sub­ject. A chance encounter with a cousin she hasn’t seen in twen­ty years sets her on the path to find the Strauss col­lec­tion, some­thing of which she was only dim­ly aware.

Her search turns her into a haunter of obscure archives, a but­ton­holer of promi­nent art experts, Nobel-Prize writ­ers (her neigh­bor Patrick Modi­ano), and ambas­sadors, as well as a thorn in the side of some muse­um offi­cials. She also recon­nects with long-lost rel­a­tives in her family’s exten­sive tree of sur­vivors, and she strives to uncov­er long-lost fam­i­ly lore. Among her many dis­cov­er­ies of her family’s his­to­ry, she recon­sid­ers what the family’s long-aban­doned Jew­ish her­itage means for her.

Not all the mys­ter­ies of what hap­pened to the Strauss col­lec­tion are resolved in her quest, but de Perignon pro­vides a sat­is­fy­ing tale of one person’s attempt to right a long­stand­ing injus­tice and redeem a family’s heritage.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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